dies · happy dance · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

35721123Summary from Goodreads:
From the author of The Queen of the Night, an essay collection exploring his education as a man, writer, and activist—and how we form our identities in life and in art. As a novelist, Alexander Chee has been described as “masterful” by Roxane Gay, “incomparable” by Junot Díaz, and “incendiary” by the New York Times. With How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, his first collection of nonfiction, he’s sure to secure his place as one of the finest essayists of his generation as well.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is the author’s manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him. In these essays, he grows from student to teacher, reader to writer, and reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, a lover, and a friend. He examines some of the most formative experiences of his life and the nation’s history, including his father’s death, the AIDS crisis, 9/11, the jobs that supported his writing—Tarot-reading, bookselling, cater-waiting for William F. Buckley—the writing of his first novel, Edinburgh, and the election of Donald Trump.

By turns commanding, heartbreaking, and wry, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel asks questions about how we create ourselves in life and in art, and how to fight when our dearest truths are under attack.

I will tell you right now that I was in Michael’s buying fancy writing/drawing pens when I got a DM from Rachel Fershleiser (bless you, lovey) asking me if I would like an early galley of Alexander Chee’s new book. Which I had been coveting hardcore. Pretty sure I shrieked out loud in the checkout line.

I have been waiting since DECEMBER to tell y’all about this book.

“To write is to sell a ticket to escape, not from the truth, but into it.” – “On Becoming an American Writer”

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is a collection of essays – some previously published elsewhere, some brand, spanking new – that outline Chee’s development as a writer and provide a peek into his experience growing up as a queer, biracial kid in Maine. Meditative pieces such as “The Curse” and “The Querent” give way to heart-breaking examinations of identity and lost love in “Girls” – a powerhouse essay anthologized in The Best American Essays 2016 – and “After Peter.” (Note: I will never not weep reading “After Peter,” it is sublime.) Chee then takes us on a tour of the Struggling Writer’s Life: jobbing as a yoga teacher, tarot reader, and cater-waiter (“Mr. and Mrs. B”), getting an MFA (“My Parade”), various living arrangements (“Impostor”), and creating a garden (“The Rosary”). At times, he is wry and cheeky in pieces such as “100 Things About Writing a Novel.” And then, if you have read his previous novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, he quietly turns you inside out with “The Autobiography of My Novel” and “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.” (Side note: if you haven’t read his novels get on that because you are seriously deprived of amazing sentences.) The order of essays builds over the course of the book to a moving examination of what it means to be an American writer, especially at this present time, in “On Becoming an American Writer.” 

Alexander Chee has a gift – he can write sentences that just stick in the mind like tiny bits of grit, to be worked over and polished and revisited.

“That afternoon, I tried to understand if I had made a choice about what to write. But instead it seemed to me if anyone had made a choice, the novel had, choosing me like I was a door and walking through me out into the world.” – “The Autobiography of My Novel”

These are not complex sentences nor filled with over-flowing description but are complex and beautiful in their simplicity. It is such a privilege to read his words. I could read them forever.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is out on Tuesday, April 17. Bravo, Alex. Thank you so much for your beautiful book. I look forward to making as many people as possible buy this book.

ETA: I would like to introduce you to another writer, Brandon Taylor, who stans for Alexander Chee even more than I do and writes far more eloquently and intelligently about Chee’s work than I could ever possibly hope to write. Please read his essay about How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, “Sad Queer Books: When You’re a Queer Person of Color, Writing is Tough Yet Vital,” at Them. Keep an eye on Brandon, by the way. He’s going to blow us all out of the water.

Dear FTC: You know I rubbed this galley all over my eyeballs when I got it.  I’ll be buying a copy whenever Alex manages to get himself to Iowa for a reading so I can be weird and awkward in person and gush all over while he signs it (and the galley, too).

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mini-review · stuff I read

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein

34964868Summary from Goodreads:
Before she was a trauma cleaner, Sandra Pankhurst was many things: husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, trophy wife. . . But as a little boy, raised in violence and excluded from the family home, she just wanted to belong. Now she believes her clients deserve no less.

A woman who sleeps among garbage she has not put out for forty years. A man who bled quietly to death in his living room. A woman who lives with rats, random debris and terrified delusion. The still life of a home vacated by accidental overdose.

Sarah Krasnostein has watched the extraordinary Sandra Pankhurst bring order and care to these, the living and the dead—and the book she has written is equally extraordinary. Not just the compelling story of a fascinating life among lives of desperation, but an affirmation that, as isolated as we may feel, we are all in this together.

I first heard about The Trauma Cleaner from Liberty on the All the Books podcast in a round-up of anticipated 2018 releases. Lib has never steered me wrong, so I pulled up the galley on Edelweiss and devoured it.

The Trauma Cleaner is an absolutely fascinating book that twines three stories into one: the surface-level business of trauma cleaning (the cleaning done after a person has died or is in a hoarding situation, etc), the heart-rending biography of the woman who owns the business and how she has managed to survive with such compassion for others still intact, and the thread of the author’s own story with her own history of trauma. The story of Sandra Pankhurst is also the story of the struggle of LGBT+ persons in Australia against discrimination and for trans-men and -women to live as men and women with the same legal rights as everyone else. This is a rough, rough book to read though.  Pankhurst endured a lot of physical abuse from her parents and sexual assault as an adult. All the trigger warnings. Be prepared to step back and take a breath.

As one of Sandra Pankhurst’s doctors said, it is astounding to think how much she has accomplished given that she is physically ailing and how much more she could accomplish given better health or opportunities earlier in life.

The Trauma Cleaner is out today in the US.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · Reading Women · stuff I read

Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

35297351Summary from Goodreads:
Calling to mind the best works of Paul Beatty and Junot Díaz, this collection of moving, timely, and darkly funny stories examines the concept of black identity in this so-called post-racial era.

A stunning new talent in literary fiction, Nafissa Thompson-Spires grapples with black identity and the contemporary middle class in these compelling, boundary-pushing vignettes.

Each captivating story plunges headfirst into the lives of new, utterly original characters. Some are darkly humorous—from two mothers exchanging snide remarks through notes in their kids’ backpacks, to the young girl contemplating how best to notify her Facebook friends of her impending suicide—while others are devastatingly poignant—a new mother and funeral singer who is driven to madness with grief for the young black boys who have fallen victim to gun violence, or the teen who struggles between her upper middle class upbringing and her desire to fully connect with black culture.

Thompson-Spires fearlessly shines a light on the simmering tensions and precariousness of black citizenship. Her stories are exquisitely rendered, satirical, and captivating in turn, engaging in the ongoing conversations about race and identity politics, as well as the vulnerability of the black body. Boldly resisting categorization and easy answers, Nafissa Thompson-Spires is an original and necessary voice in contemporary fiction.

Another outstanding short story collection for 2018. Thompson-Spires has bookended darkly comic and satirical stories about being black in America, including one about two feuding mothers who communicate through notes in their daughters’ schoolbags and another about an able-bodied woman who develops a fixation on men with physical disabilities – I found this to be ingenious commentary about white men who fetishize/objectify women of color), with two moving pieces about the violence perpetrated on young black men by law enforcement. The writing and form are superb.

Dear FTC: I bought a copy for my nook because the digital galley file wouldn’t open.

mini-review · stuff I read

Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution by Menno Schilthuizen

34930832Summary from Goodreads:
From evolutionary biologist Menno Schilthuizen, a book that will make you see yourself and the world around you in an entirely new way.

For a long time, biologists thought evolution was a necessarily slow process, too incremental to be observed in a lifetime. In Darwin Comes to Town, evolutionary biologist Menno Schilthuizen shows that evolution can in fact happen extremely quickly, and in the strangest of places: the heart of the city.

Menno Schilthuizen is one of a growing number of “urban ecologists” studying how our manmade environments are accelerating the evolution of the animals and plants around us. Cities are extreme environments and, in a world of adapt or die, the wildlife sharing these spaces with us is being forced to adopt fascinating new ways of surviving, and often thriving.

–Carrion crows in the Japanese city of Sendai have learned to use passing traffic to crack nuts.
–Spiders in Vienna are adapting to build their webs near moth-attracting streetlights, while moths in some cities are developing a resistance to the lure of light bulbs.
–Certain Puerto Rican city lizards are evolving feet that better grip surfaces like concrete.
–Europe’s urban blackbirds sing at a higher pitch than their rural cousins, to be heard over the din of traffic, while many pigeons have eschewed traveling “as the crow flies” in favor of following manmade roads.

Darwin Comes to Town draws on these and other eye-popping examples to share a stunning vision of urban evolution in which humans and wildlife co-exist in a unique harmony. It reveals that evolution can happen far more rapidly than Darwin dreamed, while providing a glimmer of hope that our race toward overpopulation might not take the rest of nature down with us.

Darwin Comes to Town is surprisingly fun – and chatty – book about urban biodiversity and evolution. As the world changes, and more and more people migrate around the world and into cities, animals will do the same. There will be more “rural” animal species that move into the city and become “urban” species. At this point we also can’t get away from the reality that humans have contributed to these changes as we have helped transport species from their native niches all over the globe. A very interesting book.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

library · mini-review · stuff I read

Death of a Hollow Man by Caroline Graham (Chief Inspector Barnaby #2)

454571Summary from Goodreads:
Actors do love their dramas, and the members of the Causton Amateur Dramatic Society are no exception. Passionate love scenes, jealous rages? they?re better than a paycheck (not that anyone one in this production of Amadeus is getting one). But even the most theatrically minded must admit that murdering the leading man in full view of the audience is a bit over the top. Luckily, Inspector Tom Barnaby ? first seen in The Killings at Badger’s Drift — is in that audience, and he’s just the man to find the killer. With so many dramas playing out, there’s no shortage of suspects, including secret lovers and jealous understudies galore. Ms. Graham tweaks her collection of community-theater artistes and small-town drama queens with merciless delight until the curtain falls on the final page.

Now that I finished all the seasons of Midsomer Murders on Netflix, I decided to go back and read the original books.  I had to start with book two Death of a Hollow Man, since someone else had book one (The Killings at Badger’s Drift) out from the library. Tom Barnaby is the original dad detective, he is a delight. And Caroline Graham does write in a very witty, almost Agatha Christie way. For being written in 1989, the book doesn’t feel that dated. However, I don’t like Sgt Troy’s character here, he’s much better in the TV adaptation.

The adaptation from book to screen – which I think was done by Graham herself – is very different in that the show adds in a connected murder to start the episode and lend motivation for the events leading up to Esslyn’s murder. I think it was a good choice for TV. All the extra stuff about Amadeus and the characters’ sniping at one another works on the page, but would have been really boring on screen.

This edition of Death of a Hollow Man, that I read, is very cheaply and poorly typeset. Words are misspelled, copy editing mistakes abound. I can’t decide if the use of “Persued” in the chapter heading “Exit, Persued by a Bear” instead of “Pursued” was meant to be a joke, since that was a spelling possible in Shakespeare’s time, or just another example of sloppiness. Won’t deter me from reading more though. It was fun. So if you’re looking for a mystery series that is fun and interesting without being gory, misogynistic, or too “cozy”, this might a good choice.

Dear FTC: I borrowed this book from the library.

audiobooks · mini-review · stuff I read

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara

35180979Summary from Goodreads:
For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.

Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist who created the popular website TrueCrimeDiary.com, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called “the Golden State Killer.” Michelle pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark —the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death—offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth. Utterly original and compelling, it is destined to become a true crime classic—and may at last unmask the Golden State Killer.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a completely absorbing and terrifying (especially in the first third or so) work of true crime reporting/memoir/Google sleuthing about the search for the Golden State Killer (who was not named that until McNamara gave it to him, which was a thing I did not know). The writing is compelling, kudos to McNamara’s research assistant and team who organized and completed the book after her death. They were very careful to note which parts of the book were finished by McNamara herself and which were finished by her team. Although, there’s a weird Epilogue addressed to the killer placed AFTER Patton Oswalt wrote a lovely Afterword to his wife and the timing is just NO. That Epilogue should have come before the Afterword.

I do have to warn you that you absolutely do NOT want to read or listen to this book at night.  Alone.  By yourself.  Unless you want to wind up getting absolutely no sleep and finding out that the cat managed to open the door to the garage in the middle of the night so you spend an hour checking in all the closets of the house to make sure no psychos are lying in wait for you.

Dear FTC: I listened to an audiobook recording that I borrowed from the library.

Reading Diversely · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Hurts to Love You by Alisha Rai (Forbidden Hearts #3)

35068637Summary from Goodreads:
Being bad never felt so good, in the third novel in Alisha Rai’s sexy Forbidden Hearts series!

Well-behaved women don’t lust after men who love to misbehave.

Heiress Evangeline Chandler knows how to keep a secret . . . like her life-long crush on the tattooed hottie who just happens to be her big brother’s friend. She’s a Chandler, after all, and Chandlers don’t hook up with the help. Then again, they also don’t disobey their fathers and quit their respectable jobs, so good-girl rules may no longer apply.

Gabriel Hunter hides the pain of his past behind a smile, but he can’t hide his sudden attraction to his friend’s sheltered little sister. Eve is far too sweet to accept anything less than forever and there’s no chance of a future between the son of a housekeeper and the town’s resident princess.

When a wedding party forces Eve and Gabe into tight quarters, keeping their hands off each other will be as hard as keeping their clothes on. The need that draws them together is stronger than the forces that should shove them apart . . . but their sparks may not survive the explosion when long-buried secrets are finally unearthed.

OK, so, here’s the deal.  I know that we always say that you can read parts of romance series as stand-alones, that you don’t have to always read them in order.  However, I think you will get much, much more satisfaction from reading Hurts to Love You after you’ve read the first two books in the series (Hate to Want You and Wrong to Need You). There’s some inter-family stuff that will make way more sense. Plus they are ah-mayzing. Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

Good, you’re back.  Eve and Gabe were first introduced separately in Hate to Want You, Eve is Nicholas’s little sister and Gabe is Livvy’s boss at the tattoo parlor.  There’s an age gap between them of about 10-ish years (to be honest, I didn’t stop to calculate or notice while I was tearing through this book) and Gabe hasn’t been very close with Eve’s family in about a decade. As he says, Paul (Livvy’s older brother) got him in the “divorce” when the Oka-Kane and Chandler families split (ok, this is why you have to read the whole series, I’m telling you). But Eve’s got a little secret: she’s had a secret crush on Gabe for years and goes undercover as a Ryde driver to make sure she’s the one driving him home after his nights out.  When Eve and Gabe are thrown together in the run-up to Nicholas and Livvy’s wedding, Gabe learns that Eve is not longer the kid sister of his former friend and Eve learns that opening oneself to emotional experiences is a risk, but one worth taking.

*sigh* forever. I loved, loved this concluding installment to the Forbidden Hearts series and devoured it in one sitting. Then I read it straight through again. Eve and Gabe’s story is far more like Livvy and Nicholas’s story than Jackson and Sadia’s – there’s a LOT of drama and plotting. But it’s SO GOOD. Plus allllll the family pops up and there’s a tiny matchmaking subplot (this part was adorable – please to have a short story?). The glue in this story is how having emotions and caring for others can hurt you, but it can also feel so damn good. Eve has really closed herself off emotionally after years of verbal and emotional abuse from her father and watching her work through allowing herself to not only experience emotions but also express them was so profoundly moving.

Hurts to Love You will be out on TUESDAY March 27 – get your eyeballs ready, maybe buy some Kleenex.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley and did you really think I wasn’t going to have this pre-ordered?

mini-review · Reading Diversely · Reading Women · stuff I read

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi (Tangled Axon #1)

18214164Summary from Goodreads:
Alana Quick is the best damned sky surgeon in Heliodor City, but repairing starship engines barely pays the bills. When the desperate crew of a cargo vessel stops by her shipyard looking for her spiritually-advanced sister Nova, Alana stows away. Maybe her boldness will land her a long-term gig on the crew. But the Tangled Axon proves to be more than star-watching and plasma coils. The chief engineer thinks he’s a wolf. The pilot fades in and out of existence. The captain is all blond hair, boots, and ego . . . and Alana can’t keep her eyes off her. But there’s little time for romance: Nova’s in danger and someone will do anything—even destroying planets—to get their hands on her!

Jenn at Get Booked also has recommended Ascension multiple times. So when I had a hankering for a space opera, I remembered that I had this on my nook.

Koyanagi created an intriguing world both inside and outside the transport ship Tangled Axon. Ascension itself as a book is somewhere between a three and a four star read. Primarily, it could use a bit of editing since the plot is a little poky and unnecessarily convoluted in places. But, damn, I really enjoyed what the author was getting at with found families, faith, chronic illness, and metaphysics. Alana is such a wonderful character, very complex, and she plays against Tev so very well.  I’d love to read more in this world, with these characters (uh, one of the characters is a humanoid male who either is also a dog or has a dog spirit or something and I have questions because this is interesting), so I really hope that Koyanagi writes more.

Dear FTC: I read the copy on my nook.